BELTON — The first witness for the state in a Killeen murder trial on Tuesday said she still is haunted by the murder she saw unfold almost two years ago.
“It plays in my head, 24/7, and doesn’t go away,” said Tammy Wolf to the jury in the 264th Judicial District Court.
Wolf was having a cigarette break outside a house where she was working on the afternoon of May 30, 2017, when she saw two older men arguing outside their homes in the 2800 block of Fishpond Lane. She said she saw one of them hit the other twice with a cane and then shoot him three times in quick succession.
Twelve family and friends of John Seth Jr., 80, who was killed that day, sat close together in the courtroom, and around 10 people were in court to support the defendant, Santiago Vasquez, 86.
Paul Harrell, Vasquez’s lead defense attorney, pleaded not guilty on behalf of his client. Vasquez, with a long grizzled beard and hair, was clad in a grey suit and walked slowly with a cane, family members assisting him.
The jury of five women and seven men were chosen on Monday.
“At first I thought it was funny: two grandpas going at it, but then it got physical,” Wolf said, on the stand.
Wolf could not understand the words either man was saying, but she heard the anger in Vasquez’s voice, describing it by making a sound like a roar.
“They bickered for a few minutes and then the white man (Vasquez) hit the black man (Seth) with his cane,” Wolf said. Seth, “startled” and with his arms raised in a defensive “X,” regained his balance and then Vasquez hit him again, knocking him down, she said.
In front of a photo of the crime scene with Seth’s body, draped with a white sheet, in the road, Assistant District Attorney Anne Jackson and Wolf went through the choreography of the attack as Wolf remembered.
After being hit a second time, “the black man tried to stand up, wobbling, and then the white man shot him: ‘Pow, pow, pause, pow!’”
At that moment, emotion in the courtroom welled as some cried and others sat with heads bowed quietly in their hands.
She said that Seth only fell backward after the third shot was fired, the mail that he had retrieved minutes earlier flying out of his hands.
“It was a black gun, and I don’t know where it came from,” she said. Wolf ran back into the house where her brother had been jackhammering concrete.
“Call 911, this man just shot this man,” she remembered telling her brother. “I couldn’t believe that he just did this; this is not right.”
Defense attorney Zachary Morris told the jury in his opening statement that he “fundamentally disagrees” in the state’s version of events, which draws partly from Wolf’s testimony.
“It’s a tragedy. We’re not disagreeing that Mr. Vasquez shot Mr. Seth that day, but we have a justification of self-defense,” he said. “The backstory is that these two neighbors disliked each other quite a bit, for about 10 years,” Morris said, in his opening statement. He suggested that Vasquez, with “limited mobility,” had reason to fear Seth, who was a larger man.
Morris insisted during his opening statement, and during his cross-examination of Wolf, that “eyewitness testimony is not always reliable.”
Morris picked at Wolf’s recollection of events, the distance from which she saw the incident, and if cars or trees might have obstructed her view.
“I could see perfectly where the two men were,” Wolf said.
“But it was a ways away,” Morris countered.
Testimony will continue in the case on Wednesday, with multiple law enforcement witnesses on deck.